By ALICIA LEONARD
The Walton Board of County Commissioners (BCC) and Walton County Sheriff Ralph Johnson each presented their sides of the argument over funding for the 911 system with the Florida Administration Commission, which is made up of Gov. Charlie Crist and his Cabinet. The staff listened to arguments from both sides and suggested that Johnson re-approach the BCC and request funding for the system again.
The Administration Commission pushed back the June 4 and June 10 hearing dates until a tentative date of July 29 was set to be able to facilitate an agreement between Johnson and the BCC.
Timing could be a factor in the request. The meeting will have to be approved when the BCC reconvenes on June 9 and the public meeting between Johnson and the BCC will have to be advertised for two weeks to meet public notice requirements. Johnson said, “They suggested we try and work it out again and that’s what we are going to try and do,” said Johnson. “We are aiming for the June 24 meeting, so tentatively, it might be scheduled then.”
BCC chairman Larry Jones said the panel that heard testimony from both sides had done their homework. “They were very well-prepared and in the end, they suggested the sheriff request another public meeting and from my understanding, that request was put in this last Friday afternoon.”
“I was trying to do something good for the people of this county, plain and simple,” said Walton County Sheriff Ralph Johnson discussing the hearing held in Tallahassee last week over the $311,431 Motorola Corporation bill for the WCSO to be in compliance as a secondary call center for 911 emergencies. “I had the excess funds and I just wanted us to be in compliance.”
Matt Burns, an attorney for Johnson, said the thrust off the BCC’s opening argument during the beginning of the meeting was that the WCSO being a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) for the the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) was a matter of convenience, but not a necessity. “By the time the hearing was over, I think that point was not pushed when testimony revealed that this would make Walton the only county in Florida where the Sheriff’s office was not a PSAP. I don’t feel like they were expressing the point as much as they were pointing out they believe they have the authority to make that change. It was a little unsettling to hear that the system might be considered a convenience and not a matter of public safety.”
That interpretation was puzzling to Walton County Commissioner Sara Comander, who attended the hearing. When asked about Burns’ comments about the PSAP, Commissioner Comander responded, “We have many back-ups in place in our county for 911 calls. We have the South Walton Fire Department, the DeFuniak Springs Police Department, as well as a portable PSAP we can use. But we have not discussed in any way that I am aware of whether the WCSO would not be a secondary PSAP. That would have to come in front of the commissioners as a staff recommendation to even consider it.”
Burns also insisted the Florida Statue’s regarding the way the sheriff’s office handles funds or encumbrances is also a gray area. “This is a part of the whole problem. The way that funds can be encumbered, per say, by the sheriff’s office. There are no statutory guidelines as to the sheriff’s office when encumbering funds. There is a separate statute that applies to sheriff’s budgeting than applies to county budgeting. The sheriff’s statue says you are supposed to expense this amount against the year it was incurred, which seems to cause a conflict with the idea of encumbering funds. I believe it’s quite ambiguous and we have written to the Auditor General for guidance on the subject. I believe that this is something that might have to be fixed on the state level.”
Comander said she felt that the meeting served a positive purpose. “It was a very interesting meeting and I believe the Cabinet prepared themselves well for the meeting. I believe they even mentioned that this was the first one they had convened for in a case, such as this one, in 15 years. But, I feel we will have a positive outcome from it. They suggested we come back and work it out amongst ourselves and we are very open to that suggestion and will work toward it.”
Burns and Johnson both said they would like this to be resolved as amicably as possible. Burns said, “We want to work with them, get this wrapped up and move on.”
WALTON SHERIFF Ralph Johnson met with state officials and Walton County Commissioners in Tallahassee regarding a budget request. Both sides were directed to try to resolve the matter by planning a new round of public hearings.